"Once I Can Hear the Way the Character Speaks": A Q&A with Carol Rifka Brunt

Dear Reader,


Tell the Wolves I’m Home was just one of a handful of titles I’d stashed in my bag for a flight to LA — but it was the first thing I grabbed.  Roughly two-thirds of the way in, I realized I was getting a little teary (and not because of the dry cabin air).  It was the way Brunt captured the AIDS panic of the late 1980s and her characters’ complicated relationships that did me in. (The last book that made me a little weepy was Where the Red Fern Grows. I was 10.)


The Wall Street Journal calls Tell the Wolves I’m Home “tremendously moving…Ms. Brunt strikes a difficult balance, imbuing June with the disarming candor of a child and the melancholy wisdom of a heart-scarred adult.”  In its review, The A.V. Club says, “The novel provides an earnest look at the burdens of choice and the fear of missed opportunities, all while weaving a beautiful portrait of the complicated relationships between family members…A terrific coming-of-age-story.”


Brunt talks about finding inspiration and her characters’ voices, and wanting to be the kind of person who writes in coffee shops, among other things, with Discover Great New Writers.


What inspired you to write this story?


I can’t really name a single inspiration. I’ve heard other writers talk about getting ideas from newspaper articles or photos or overheard conversations. I’m always envious when they can remember the exact thing that inspired the work. I don’t think I work that way. It’s not that I don’t also notice those sorts of things, but they seem to need to go into the compost heap of my mind for such a long time—like decades—that by the time they make their way into fiction the original inspiration is entirely unrecognizable.


What I can remember is that I was working on several short stories at the time and, in the way that often happens when you’re doing a lot of creative work, a scene came into my mind that was unrelated to any of the stories. The scene was a dying uncle painting a final portrait of his niece. I didn’t know anything else at that point. No sense that he was dying of AIDS or even that this would be set in New York. I just saw the two of them and felt that there was a lot of tension in the situation. That scene turned into a 700-word short story (very similar to the first chapter of the book) and from there I kept going because there was so much more I wanted to know about the situation and the characters.


Where do you usually write? 


 I am so easily distracted that I have to stay at home. I have a tiny little closet-sized office across from the kitchen. Even when I’ve lived in houses where I had an office with a view, I found that I had to draw the curtains in order to stay focused. It is very easy to spend days staring out the window. I would love to one day be the kind of person who can write in coffee shops or in the park, but I fear that may never happen.


How did you come up with your characters?


I don’t feel like I really came up with them. I don’t do character profiles or anything like that. They seem to just emerge. That is such an unsatisfactory answer! I know. But, really, that’s pretty much how it feels. June’s voice, for instance, was there right from the start. That’s usually the key for me. Once I can hear the way the character speaks, I can start to uncover who they really are. June is the first-person narrator of Tell the Wolves I’m Home, but I also wrote pages where I let the other characters ramble on in first person, knowing they would not be included in the book, just as a way to get their voices in my head.


I do think that for me, characters—all of them, not just main characters or narrators—are little slivers of my own self. Each has a little seed of a possible me in them and if that seed had been allowed to grow, maybe I would have turned out that way rather than this. Maybe characters are a way of exploring our alternative selves.


What made you explore the topic of AIDS?


It was more of a process of uncovering that the uncle was dying of AIDS than a decision to explore that topic from the outset. The uncle was childless, which was why this final painting, this final chance at forging a connection with somebody who would go on to outlive him by so many years, was so important to him. He was childless and only in his 40s, and when I understood that, I started to understand that he had AIDS. What I quickly realized was that as a writer of fiction, AIDS affords you a lot of morally complex material to work with. There will be somebody who gave the character AIDS. There will be guilt and shame. Cancer isn’t like that. No other modern day disease has the particular cruelty of AIDS, where you can give somebody you might love a life ending (in the 80s, when Tell the Wolves is set) illness. I don’t think Wolves is an AIDS story as such. It isn’t a book about disease, but the implications of this specific disease are felt right through the novel.


Late in the writing of the first draft I understood something else about my connection to AIDS. My eighth grade English teacher was a man from London who had come over to teach us via an exchange program. This was quite an exciting thing for us. His accent, musical taste, dress sense, all of it was pretty exotic. He taught us for the year then returned to England. About six months after he left, word came back that he’d died. He was only in his 30s. A few weeks later word got out that he’d had AIDS. This was my (and I’m sure most of my classmates’) first personal brush with AIDS. It was shocking at the time. Only after a lot of writing did I understand that this event had remained in my subconscious in a rather large way. Even my descriptions of Toby in the book bear a strong resemblance to that teacher. I think that’s one of the most miraculous things about writing; the way you get a kind of sneaky access to your own subconscious.


Who have  you discovered lately?


I’ve recently re-discovered Russell Banks. I love Affliction, The Sweet Hereafter and his collection of stories, The Angel on the Roof. For some reason he kind of drifted off my radar for a few years, but I just started reading Lost Memory of Skin and am remembering all over again why I like his work so much.


Cheers, Miwa

Miwa Messer

Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.